Obama’s Foreign Policy Debacle



Conservatives have compared Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter for months now. Most point to his domestic policies: his poor handling of the economy, his inability to articulate a pro-growth agenda and his job killing policies. A better argument would focus on the foreign policy misadventures, reminiscent of the Carter years,  the president has led us into in 2011.

The Powerline guys have written two critiques today. The second one comes from Steven F. Hayward, who chronicled the Carter years in his masterful work: The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Liberal Order 1964-1980 and detailed it, more comprehensively, in The Real Jimmy Carter.

The take away from the Hayward works: A weak president can have catastrophic consequences in foreign affairs. Jimmy Carter proved that. It was said that during his presidency, there was nothing more dangerous than being an American ally.

Carter stood by as the Shah of Iran fell and watched Iran (a long-standing ally) turn into an Islamic state. He deserted another long-time ally, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and let the Marxist Sandinistas take over Nicaragua.

Miscommunication and misplaced idealism produced these foreign policy debacles. Carter famously sent mixed messages to these allies, giving them the impression that U.S. help would be there when the going got tough. Instead, Carter cleansed his hands from the sins of these authoritarians as popular uprisings overthrow these leaders.

Both Iran and Nicauraga (to a lesser extent) proved to be a thorn in America’s side for the next three decades.

President Obama’s handling of foreign policy has some wondering what our interests are and where our allies stand. His management of the Arab spring has many scratching their heads.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was the defining event of the Arab Spring. Obama called Mubarak to step aside and claimed he’d lost the legitimacy of his people. Six months later, Mubarak is appearing before an Egyptian court from a hospital bed. He is a sad and pathetic looking figure. The Egyptian military is running the country temporarily, but elections next year could usher in a government run by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Libya, the U.S. launched a humanitarian operation to keep Moammar Qaddaffi from slaughtering his people. The media reported that President Obama was influenced by advisor Samantha Power, a woman who argues the U.S. has a moral responsibility to prevent genocide.

Critics of the Libyan campaign said we had no idea who we were supporting. The Qaddafi rebels were a disparate group with Islamist elements. Could the U.S.really be supporting its enemies in a quest to rid North Africa of its longest serving dictator? Last week, conservative blogger Barry Rubin wrote: An Islamist terrorist takes command of main rebel forces.

Neoconservatives have argued the U.S.had no strategic interest in Libya. They preferred to attack Syria (an ally of Iran), where Bashar al-Assad was liquidating his own people.

President Obama condemned Assad’s behavior and said the Syrian dictator has lost the legitimacy of his people. That same line of attack was used against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But neither Mubarak nor Assad have any legitimacy to begin with. Both held onto power through force. Mubarak stepped down when he refused to shoot protestors. Assad has killed thousands in an effort to quell rebellion.

The totalitarian held onto power while the authoritarian did not. Hardliners will kill as many as possible to hold onto power.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick laid out this theory in her famous 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” The following paragraphs summarize her argument.

The foreign policy of the Carter administration fails not for lack of good intentions but for lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies and the relation of each to the American national interest. Only intellectual fashion and the tyranny of Right/Left thinking prevent intelligent men of good will from perceiving the facts that traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, that they are more susceptible of liberalization, and that they are more compatible with U.S. interests. The evidence on all these points is clear enough.
Surely it is now beyond reasonable doubt that the present governments of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos are much more repressive than those of the despised previous rulers; that the government of the People’s Republic of China is more repressive than that of Taiwan, that North Korea is more repressive than South Korea, and so forth. This is the most important lesson of Vietnam and Cambodia. It is not new but it is a gruesome reminder of harsh facts.

It doesn’t seem as if the Obama foreign policy team has recognized this distinction either. This is to the detriment of the administration and the American people because it emboldens our enemies and demoralizes our allies.

Now, should people like Hosni Mubarak be our allies? Should the United States support authoritarians like him? Or the Saudi royal family? Should the U.S. abandon its values in pursuit of its interests?

Those are separate questions entirely. They are legitimate questions with no easy answers.



  1. Not sure I understand your premise completely, but it looks like you’re suggesting that the US should have supported Mubarak? It is upto the people of the respective states to decide what kind of government they want. Sometimes the resulting administration will be pro-US and sometimes not. But an important piece to realize is that authoritarian regimes get toppled not because they are authoritarian, but more because they have clung on to power for a generation and people want to see change. If change gets replaced by a worse dictator, it is only a matter of time, before that dictator will be replaced as well. I think the US stance needs to be more in line with human rights than with the kind of regime.

    1. Excellent point. I think the U.S. is best served when champions liberalism and serves as the City on the Hill inspiration. The president hinted at it during his May 19th address .

      Liberalism, pluralism and respect for minority rights promote/protect human rights. I’m skeptical that democracy alone is sufficient.

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